Was the Rise of ISIS Inevitable?

In the latest issue of Survival, Hal Brands and Peter Feaver address an important debate in American foreign policy circles. Was the rise of ISIS inevitable, or was it the result of misguided U.S. policies? Most agree it is the latter, but the dispute gets fraught on the question of whether it was U.S. military interventionism or inaction that deserves the blame. Some say it was the invasion of Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS. Others insist it was Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Brands and Feaver use counterfactual analysis to assess whether different U.S. policy decisions at four “inflection points” could have nipped the rise of ISIS in the bud. The first of these points was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The other three occurred during the Obama administration and include the decision not to press Iraq to allow the United States to leave behind a significant number of U.S. troops, the decision not to intervene aggressively early on in the Syrian civil war, and the decision not to intervene more forcefully to help the government of Iraq defeat ISIS before it took the city of Mosul.

The authors take a middle road, arguing that, “the rise of ISIS was indeed an avertable tragedy,” but that both restraint and activism share the blame. Had U.S. policymakers not invaded Iraq in 2003, or been more aggressive in Iraq and Syria from 2011-2014, they argue, “ISIS might not have emerged at all.”

With suitable analytic humility, however, the authors warn against overconfidence that any of the alternatives would have made a decisive difference to the eventual outcome:

We find, for instance, that limited intervention in Syria in 2011-13 might have had benefits, but it probably would not have shifted the course of the conflict so fundamentally as to head of ISIS’s rise. Likewise, not invading Iraq in 2003 would have left the United States saddled with the costs of continuing to contain that country, whereas striking ISIS militarily in late 2013 or early 2014 might have weakened that organization militarily while exacerbating the political conditions that were fueling its rise. Intervening more heavily in Iraqi politics in 2010 in order to bring about a less sectarian government than that which ultimately emerged, and leaving a stay-behind force in Iraq after 2011, represent a fairly compelling counterfactual in the sense that such policies could have had numerous constructive effects. But even here, choosing a different path from the one actually taken would have meant courting non-trivial costs, liabilities, uncertainties and limitations (p. 10).

We applaud Brands and Feaver, who served in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, for their attempt to “move away from polemical and polarized assessments focused on assigning blame, and toward more granular, balanced analysis based on a fairer-minded view of what went wrong (p. 10).” At the same time, there is plenty of room for disagreement over their interpretation of the “what ifs” of such a complex historical question.

Marijuana Licensing

If libertarians were in charge of legalizing marijuana, their first instinct would be to reach for an eraser.

That is, libertarians would simply eliminate existing laws that outlaw marijuana, rather than “design” the marijuana market by establishing a licensing board, capping the number of legal marijuana retailers, and the like.

Actual state marijuana legalizations, however, have generally capped the number of retail establishments and put a government board in charge of doling out the lucrative licenses to run them.

Predictably, this means that well-connected, white entrepreneurs benefit at the expense of African-Americans: 

Darryl Hill, hailed for integrating college football in his youth half a century ago, was a successful entrepreneur with no criminal record and plenty of capital when he applied for a license to grow marijuana in Maryland — a perfect candidate, or so he thought, to enter a wide-open industry that was supposed to take racial diversity into account.

To his dismay, Hill was shut out on his first attempt. So were at least a dozen other African American applicants for Maryland licenses. They were not told why.

The good news is that, in this instance, Hill seems to have circumvented the apparent bias:

… the 73-year-old great-grandfather who was the first black football player at the University of Maryland sought an ally in his quest to help other minorities — and himself — break into the closed ranks of cannabis cultivation and sales.

Hill’s new business partner, Rhett Jordan, happens to be a groundbreaker in his own right. The 33-year-old Colorado industry pioneer, who is white, founded one of the largest legal marijuana operations in the nation.

But Hill’s success should not obscure licensing’s harm: restricted supply, higher prices, and crony capitalism.

Kokesh v. SEC: A Penalty By Any Other Name

This week, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion finding what should have been obvious from the start.  That when a government agency requires someone to turn over money to the U.S. Treasury as a result of the person being found guilty of wrongdoing, that constitutes a penalty. 

In Kokesh v. SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission argued that disgorgement is not a penalty or forfeiture and therefore, due to a particular law’s limitations, the SEC is entitled to bring cases that are even decades old.  Disgorgement is a remedy that requires the defendant to pay back something that was obtained through unlawful means.  Under 28 U.S.C. § 2462, the federal government has five years in which to bring any “action, suit, or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.” The SEC has held that disgorgement falls into none of these categories and therefore there is no limit on how long the agency has to bring a case in which it is seeking disgorgement.

As we argued in our amicus brief filed on behalf of Charles Kokesh, it is a well-established principle in law that cases must be timely to be just.  When actions are fresh, access to evidence will likely be robust.  Witnesses’ memories are more likely to be clear.  Both sides will likely have the relevant documents at hand.  The court will have the best chance of getting to the truth.  But when a case is stale, memories will have faded, documents will have been lost or innocently destroyed, and it will be uncertain whether the existing evidence will present the most accurate picture of what really happened.

In ruling in favor of Mr. Kokesh a unanimous court found that disgorgement is indeed a penalty.  In writing for the Court, Justice Sotomayor announced two factors that determine whether a payment is a penalty.  First, it must be determined whether the payment has been imposed to redress a wrong to the public, or a wrong to an individual.  A penalty is imposed to redress the former, not the latter.  “This is because penal laws, strictly and properly, are those imposing punishment for an offense committed against the State.”  (internal quotations omitted.)  The second question is whether the payment was imposed to deter future wrongdoing.

Trump’s “Travel Ban” Is Based on an Entirely False Legal Premise

Donald Trump fired off several tweets this morning about his executive order barring for at least 90 days all immigration or travel to the United States for six Middle Eastern and African nationalities, stating that he thinks it should actually be much broader. I have previously explained why President Trump’s national security justification for the order is completely devoid of evidence. But another fact that we highlighted in our amicus brief deserves attention here: that the order’s supposed “security” purpose is based on an entirely false legal premise.

The executive order claims that it is suspending entries to give the Secretary of Homeland Security time to study “whether, and if so what, additional information will be needed from each foreign country to adjudicate an application by a national of that country for a visa, admission, or other benefit under the INA (adjudications) in order to determine that the individual is not a security or public-safety threat.” It justified the specific countries by stating that their governments have shown less “willingness or ability to share or validate important information about individuals seeking to travel to the United States.”

Even if his claim about all six countries were true, this justification is entirely without merit because the applicant, not the government, has the burden to prove their eligibility under the law. In other words, the government has no obligation whatsoever to identify or gather information on the behalf of the applicant simply to “adjudicate” an application. 8 U.S.C. 1361 could not be clearer on this point:

Whenever any person makes application for a visa or any other document required for entry, or makes application for admission, or otherwise attempts to enter the United States, the burden of proof shall be upon such person to establish that he is eligible to receive such visa or such document, or is not inadmissible under any provision of this chapter, and, if an alien, that he is entitled to the nonimmigrant, immigrant, special immigrant, immediate relative, or refugee status claimed, as the case may be. If such person fails to establish to the satisfaction of the consular officer that he is eligible to receive a visa or other document required for entry, no visa or other document required for entry shall be issued to such person, nor shall such person be admitted to the United States unless he establishes to the satisfaction of the Attorney General that he is not inadmissible under any provision of this chapter.

Thus, if someone fails to obtain identity documents or criminal history certified by the relevant foreign authorities—as the law requires—then the consular officer can still adjudicate the application by issuing a denial. The U.S. government need not affirmatively determine anything about the applicant. Indeed, even if officers conclude that they know nothing about the applicants, this lack of knowledge still wouldn’t prevent them from denying the visa. Applicants must gather the relevant proof to establish their identity and eligibility on their own. If their foreign governments are uncooperative or unreliable, that redounds to the detriment of the visa applicant, not the U.S. government. It would certainly not prevent an individualized adjudication of their application.

Trump Pursues Air Traffic Control Reform

The Trump administration will highlight its infrastructure agenda this week. As outlined in its recent budget, the administration plans to reduce regulations on construction projects and attract private investment to traditionally government activities, such as air traffic control (ATC).

Trump will “deliver remarks in the White House Rose Garden about his vision for separating air traffic control from the federal government,” and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will testify to Congress on the issue. The administration has just released principles for ATC reform.

The Hill says that ATC reform has run into a “buzz saw of opposition on Capitol Hill,” but that is not a fair characterization. There is always opposition to any legislation that reduces the government’s role in anything. That’s Washington. But ATC reform has momentum, and a bill has been passed out of the House transportation committee to move ATC operations from the bureaucratic Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a private, nonprofit corporation.

The airlines are for it, the key labor union is for it, aviation experts are for it, and the second-largest nation on earth did it. Canada privatized its system in 1996, and today the nonprofit Nav Canada is on the leading edge of ATC efficiency and innovation. The image below shows Iridium satellites that will form the basis of an advanced navigation system for aircraft called Aireon. Nav Canada leads the revolutionary project in an international partnership—a partnership that does not include the FAA. The system will generate “more efficient use of airspace, substantial fuel savings, fewer delays and significantly enhance safety over large parts of the world.”

What is the opposition The Hill refers to? The corporate jet lobby—the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)—is against reform, and it raises the spectre of higher fees under a privatized system. But aircraft charges under the privatized Canadian system have fallen, not risen. The latest data show that “Nav Canada has seen its inflation-adjusted user fees fall 45 percent lower than the aviation taxes they replaced,” notes Marc Scribner of CEI.

The opposition of NBAA’s leadership to reform is short-sighted. Over the long term, NBAA members will be best served by an advanced and dynamic private ATC system, not one mired in bureaucracy and unstable government funding. NBAA members should research the successful Canadian reforms themselves because the record is clear.

Kudos to President Trump and Secretary Chao for rebuffing the special interests on this issue, and pursuing reforms to the overall benefit of the aviation industry and flying public.

For an overview of ATC reform, see here. For Reason’s resources on the issue, see here.

Corp Tax: JCT Revenue Estimate Is Bad but CBO Analysis Is Good

I recently questioned two connected remarks by Wall Street Journal reporter Richard Rubin that (1) “Each percentage-point reduction in the 35% corporate tax rate cuts federal revenue by about $100 billion over a decade” and that (2) “independent analyses show economic growth can’t cover all the costs of rate cuts.”

That first remark–about each percentage-point reduction in the rate losing $100 billion over a decade–is an interpretation of pages 178-79 from a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on “Options for Reducing the Deficit.”

But the CBO was just talking about raising the corporate rate by one point, not cutting it 10-20 points. That can’t be converted into a rule of thumb because each percentage point reduction in the top corporate tax rate can’t lose the exact same amount of dollars. A percentage point reduction in a 35% rate loses more static revenue than a percentage point reduction in a 30% rate, which loses more than a percentage point reduction in a 25% rate, and so on. 

Yet even for a single percentage point, I called the $100 billion 10-year projection a “bad estimate” because it assumes zero change in the economy and zero change in tax avoidance (“elasticity”).

CBO corp tax baseline plus 1%

Immigration and Trust

Whether people in a society think that most others can be trusted seems to predict many positive social and economic outcomes. A common criticism of liberalized immigration is that the newcomers come from societies with low trust, so they might bring their low-trust attitudes with them, pass them on to their descendants, and leave our society with less trust, potentially reducing future economic growth.

Economist Bryan Caplan ran a recent exercise showing that immigrants and their descendants make substantial gains in trust, virtually assimilating by the second generation. In a similar vein, my research shows that trust levels among the second-generation are basically the same as Americans whose ancestors have been here for at least four generations according to survey responses on three related questions. 

Caplan’s post provides a possible answer to the oddest question raised in my post: Why do third-generation Americans have the highest trust scores? Based on cliometric research, Caplan argues that the descendants of slaves in the United States have far lower levels of trust, similar to how African societies that were most afflicted by the slave trade have enduringly low trust rates today. All of the descendants of slaves in the United States have ancestors who arrived on our shores more that four generations ago, as legal slave importation ended in 1808. 

Excluding black respondents from the General Social Survey (GSS) on the question “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in life?” does improve trust for Americans who can trace their lineage in the United States back at least four generations (all of their grandparents were born in the United States), but the biggest trust improvement is for the immigrants themselves. I limited my sample to the years 2004 to 2014 to focus on more recent immigrants. Figure 1 presents my original findings that include respondents of all races. Figure 2 excludes all black respondents. 

Figure 1

Trust, Respondents of All Races Included, Years 2004-2014

Source: General Social Survey.

Figure 2

Trust, Black Respondents Excluded, Years 2004-2014

 

Source: General Social Survey.

When black respondents are excluded, “can trust” for Americans whose descendants have been here at least four generations goes from 32.7 percent to 37 percent while “cannot trust” drops from 62.7 percent to 58.1 percent. The answer “depends” shrinks the most from 8.5 percent to 1.2 percent. For immigrants, the “can trust” response shoots up from 22.6 percent to 36.1 percent while “cannot trust” drops from 68.9 percent to 62.7 percent. The GSS survey question shows that non-black immigrants have trust scores about the same as Americans whose grandparents were all born in the United States.